British History, 407-597, by Fabio P. Barbieri

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Chapter 2.6: The prehistory of "A"

Fabio P. Barbieri


We have seen that the origin of A must be in the Celtic culture of the British north, about the military regions of the Wall. Its historical horizon, defined by the great event which is its climax - the destruction of the Third Pictish Invasion - is the 410s. Its idea of the period beyond that hinged on a vision of British disloyalty: "once upon a time" the British had slaughtered the representatives of the Romans but had then been subjected to a tremendous Roman punishment raid, after which the Romans had imposed their own duces upon the defeated people. The landscape we always have to imagine as a background to these legends is that of the Scottish Borders; and it seems more than likely that it was in terms of the relationship between the Roman army and the still tribal North, rather than with the urbanized and Romanized Britain south of York, that we must see its ideas.

Let us therefore assume that the “Britons” of the legend reflect, not the Romano-British of south Britain, but the tribal Celts of the north - Votadini, Dumnonii, Selgovae, Novantae. What the story would tell us, from this point of view, is that, at some point before 410, the "British" - that is, the border tribes - had assassinated the local representatives of Rome; that they had then been subjected to a Roman intervention of unprecedented strength and power; and that they had seen new and more severe Roman leaders imposed upon them.

This has a familiar sound. In 367AD the arcani/areani betrayed the Roman border to the Picts; whether or not the expedition of Theodosius the elder was intended mainly to destroy Valentinus, as I argued, this is a clear statement from Ammianus and must be true. And in the savage mood of the military late empire, who can doubt that once Theodosius had re-established Roman authority, these traitors against Rome would be severely punished? Now, it is as the result of such a betrayal and such an expedition that A envisages a new aristocracy, entirely Roman by blood (according to Gildas), replacing the older "Britons" - that is, an older, native aristocracy – which the Roman host had slaughtered.

This coincides with historical fact in several points: Roman power is accepted; it is betrayed; the Romans send over an enormous host[1]; there is (surely) punishment: and at some point after that, but before the end of the Roman period, the Romans send a further expedition to rescue the British from the Picts (this is Stilicho's expedition of 399); some time after this, Rome refuses further help and the British are left alone against the menacing Picts. Those who told the story ascribed their refusal to the fact that two further crimes of disloyalty, described as massacres of Roman magistrates, had taken place, one before, one after the last rescue expedition.

These are the parallels I see: in 367 the areani, surely part of the northern tribes, betray Rome; however we envisage this betrayal, it surely resulted in the death of many Romans (a Massacre of Romans) as the Picts swept south and a whole Roman province (according to Ammianus) was smashed to the roots. Theodosius the elder comes with a strong force and sorts out the Picts - and their allies. There then is a second British crime of disloyalty, the revolt of Magnus Clemens Maximus (383-388), followed after some interval by Stilicho's expedition. The third crime of disloyalty is the usurpation of Constantine III, which was followed by the Rescript - no more help against the Picts, my lads! After the Second Massacre - to be read ex hypothesi as the historical Maximus’ revolt - the Romans send their last rescue expedition - that of Stilicho; after the Third, they explicitly refuse help - which recalls irresistibly the Rescript of Honorius - and the British have to fend for themselves.

It seems therefore that A's "Roman history" may have roots in the actual Roman history of the second half of the fourth century, remembered with no clear chronological framework, and stretched to last the whole long period of Roman rule. If that is the case, it is notable that A seems to incorporate no memory of the nervous and feeble start of Theodosius’ expedition, with a his few detachments peering from London’s walls to a countryside full of armed bands and beyond it to the threatening power of Valentinus’ adherents. All it remembers is what Ammianus describes as the final stage of the expedition, with the Roman forces, reunified by Valentinus’ disappearance, sweeping north like a gale to sort out the encroaching Picts. In other words, if we take the cycle to be inspired by these events, it only seems aware of Roman activities once they impact on the Borders. The narrowness of its vision seems to correspond to its vague chronology, which allowed its later transmitters to take it for a history of all Roman Britain; and both things suggest a stage of purely oral transmission, old men's memories repeated by later generations with no understanding.

However, a fundamental stage of A, at least according to Gildas, is the imposition of a new aristocracy of Roman blood on the treacherous tribes. Do we accept it? Curiously enough, A.H.L.Jones, Sheppard Frere and John Morris proposed the same theory on different grounds. They pointed out that the dynasties of the later Northern heroic age claimed descent from long-preserved pedigrees featuring patriarchs with recognizable Roman names (Padarn, Paternus; Cynhil, Quintilius; Cluim, Clemens) and even possible birth-places in the Roman world; and that Theodosius the elder, the leader of the rescue mission, is known to have carried out the same policy on the African borders of the empire only four years later, imposing Roman Christian praefecti over turbulent border tribes[2]. This is really quite likely; indeed, from the Roman point of view, placing reliable officers in charge of tribes which just proved treacherous and suffered vicious reprisals, seems no more than obvious policy. England did it in Ireland, not once, but several times.

Here we seem to have all the elements of A's legend of Roman conquest; the stealthy British betrayal; the vast and tremendous Roman counter-attack; the imposition of duces of Roman blood upon the humiliated tribes; and the fact that the Roman rescue army (or at least, its original core) came from outside, not from the island of Britain at all. We then have the curious fact that, in spite of a further act of disloyalty - the collaboration, in "real history", of the British army units, involving surely the local tribes, in the revolt of Magnus Maximus - what follows is not further punishment (we do not hear of any severe reprisal against Britain in 388) but rather a great mission of help against the northern enemy.

In historical terms, the problem of comparison with known history is that military revolts such as Magnentius', Maximus' and Constantine's seem to be equated in A with mere bouts of assassination of Roman duces; and that the episode of the treachery of the arcani/areani seems to be assimilated with the earlier revolt of Magnentius. And the answer to this is twofold. First, there is no indication in RA that any British army went to the continent or challenged Rome in any way; Nennius 30 knows nothing of it - the Britons clearly only want to drive the Romans out of Britain - and practically everything that Gildas has to say about Maximus invading the continent is taken fair and square from Roman history (B) and especially from Sulpicius Severus. In other words, there is no reason for us to believe that A, when it was written down, remembered anything about the reality of "British" disloyalty to Rome. It may have originated in memories of armed revolt and reaction, but the author that turned old men’s vague memories into a grand legend of nations only knew that the British had been disloyal to Rome, not how, why or where. The apocalyptic last battle of Maximus and Theodosius took place far from Britain, and there is no reason to believe than any British tribal auxiliaries, if any had come to the continent with the usurper, ever came back to tell of it. As for Magnentius, I have repeatedly pointed out that in my view the two things are closely related: that the savagery of Catena's repression probably caused the disaffection of the northern tribes (as well as the seeming demoralization of the regular army) which led, in turn, to their defection to the Picts and the troubles before 367. There is no particular reason why the ancient witnesses of the northern tribes should remember them as two separate episodes; and we may be sure that they would see the whole seven-year series of events in the light of their own part in it, which was not that of outright rebels so much as that of traitors selling the pass to the Picts. Indeed, the underlying notion that Roman law is an unbearable weight, a iugum that breaks the people's back - it was said to be resentment at the heaviness of this law that led to the conspiracy of the leaena dolosa and the First Massacre - might well bear some relation with the demoralizing effect of the para-legal horrors of Paulus Catena, carried out in the name of Roman ius.

These ideas, made vast and general, became in my view the skeleton for A's legend of Roman Britain. If we accept this, we can among other things strengthen the vague historical framework and chronology provided by those Northern dynastic lists: they did indeed begin with actual Romans, and after 367. But more importantly still, we would be able to see how in what ways a genuine historical memory of the origin of dynasties which remained in control for generations (turning all the while into native British chieftaincies with native culture and aims) could turn into a myth defining a whole world-view.

The myth-making imagination got to work on a real series of events, whose sequence was transmitted from the memories of old men with some degree of precision but without the chronological precision or the awareness of a wider world typical of the written Roman culture. At some point in the very distant past, Rome imposed its majesty over a British world which, in an even more distant antiquity, had been independent. At some unspecified stage, a series of events begins: the British become displeased with the heaviness of Roman ius; they murder Roman envoys; a gigantic Roman host (Theodosius the elder) comes, wreaks retribution, imposes its own chosen leaders on the punished tribes, and goes back to the Continent; there is further disloyalty (Magnus Clemens Maximus), as a result of which the British are left alone and defenceless against increasingly rampant Picts (since the destruction of Maximus was a very bloody affair, that weakened the borders of the whole western Empire); the Romans were begged for help and came one last time (Stilicho); and, after one last piece of disloyalty (Constantine III, in whose revolt a large body of British highland troops, the so-called Honoriaci, took prominent part), the Romans, with a written document, washed their hands of British defence.

The myth-making imagination formed a structure out of these memories. British disloyalty, Massacre, and Roman retribution, became a principle defining the relationship of the two peoples. More interestingly, the triadic notion of three successive Roman invasions and three successive Massacres turns out to be an instrument of analysis. One Roman invasion defines majesty: the Romans come because they are masters, they come without resistance. The second defines power - immense power - and British powerlessness and shame. And the third defines the noblest function of majesty and power, which is compassion for the unfortunate and help for the helpless. The three separate headings, into which this analytical narrative divides what the teller saw as the core of Rome's relationship with (north) Britain, are not arbitrarily disposed; each develops out of the preceding one. The establishment of majesty motivates and justifies the use of force: once Rome's own representatives are murdered, Rome can do nothing else than avenge them - both out of duty to its own slighted majesty, and out of very human anger at their deaths. And once Roman majesty is established both in law and in fact, without any further opportunity for resistance, Rome cannot remain indifferent to the plight of people who belong to her; as anger was the legitimate and justified reaction to British treason, so compassion and protection are the legitimate and justified reactions to British helplessness. In fact, here are the two aspects of majesty, punishment and protection, in one structure.

The analysis extends into collateral areas. The legend of the "stamping" of gold and silver, and the removal of wine and olive, is certainly not dependent on any historical memory, obscured or otherwise; gold and silver had been stamped by Rome for centuries, and no grapes or olive had ever grown in the land of oats and kale. It follows that it is part of the set of categories by which the memories were interpreted - or, to look at it another way, the set of categories that were imposed on the memories. Evidently, the seizing of power over wealth and over substances of sacrifice belonged to the second stage of the analysis of royal power: it was part of the process of seizing by force a sovereignty already conceded by law. The Romans assert their power over precious and sacred substances not at the first stage, the stage of assertion of majesty, but at the second, the stage of imposition of Roman power by armed might.

Furthermore, though Christian ideas are evident in the nature of the sacrificial material, and Catholic ones in the fact that once it is removed to Rome, it does not come back, the legend harks back to a mentality in which control of sacrificial material was one of the royal functions: the king controlled sacrificial material because of his innate power over wealth, expressed in armed strength. This is hardly a Christian idea; on the other hand, it is at the back of the many Celtic stories about cattle raids. In Celtic ideas, control of cattle is of great importance, no doubt because it is the finest pagan sacrificial substance, except for man. When this form of thinking, in which the royal element of society controls sacrificial material though the druidic element does the sacrificing, was misapplied to the Christian Eucharist, then a purely incidental fact (that one of the basic materials of the Eucharist - wine - and an instrument of Jewish-Christian blessing - olive oil - are found only in the Mediterranean and cannot grow in north Britain) was worked into a picture of ultimate religious dominance from Rome; even though the other substance of Christian sacrifice - Bread - is quite native to Britain. And this religious dominance was seen as the residual or even the final effect of ancient Roman sovereign power, rather than as the result of a wholly different sanction, a sanction from God which had little or nothing to do with the human power of Rome.

(Of course it is quite possible that, from a North British perspective, Palestine and Greece and Italy should appear as one and the same thing, part of the same Roman world, all of it invested with the same sovereign quality; in which case the Palestinian heritage of the Church would not be seen as separate from the conquering power of Rome as manifested - the legend thinks - in British history.)

The narrative of RA, therefore, appears to embody a sophisticated analysis of the Celtic view of royal power, cast in native categories, but adapted to allow for the fact - if not necessarily an understanding - of the new Catholic religious practices. While A's relationship with the historical past has - to us - the kind of confusion we tend to find only among the ignorant and the illiterate, the story it formed became the vehicle for social and religious ideas of considerable sophistication and analytical shrewdness. This kind of elaboration cannot depend on mere peasant memory; it bespeaks a social group with a habit of structured analytical thinking, in categories which - in spite of a firmly asserted Christian identity - largely escape the Christian world of thought, and appear rooted in the Indo-European Three Functions. There were people - a class of them, not just an isolated genius - trained to think in what, broadly speaking, we may call analytical terms. But the analysis was not, as it would be among us, separate from the narrative; rather it was part of it, its very vehicle and backbone. Hence the importance of triads - a natural analytical form of thought - in the structuring of the story.

In the case of A, therefore, it is imprecise to speak of "popular memory"; the historical memory we have in A belongs to an illiterate but educated class of storytellers, trained to structure their stories analytically, as instruments of understanding of the world. A whole theory of sovereignty and power may be drawn from the legend of A.

And mention of royal power is to the point in another way. The idea of British treachery and Roman revenge did not embed itself in North British memory - and what we may call North British traditional sociology - by chance. It must have reflected the power of dynasties whose ultimate sanction was their Roman nomination. The legend is, in this, quite frighteningly realistic: the Roman duces are there to enforce the power of Rome, even where the armed strength of the empire is not directly present. This is the ultimate horizon in North British memory, beyond which, when A was compiled, nobody could see. Therefore it was imagined as the permanent condition of contact between these two peoples, Romans and Britons. The picture was certainly reinforced by the fact that, while the "Roman" dynasties - by now thoroughly Celticized - were still present in the North, the Roman empire as a reality had ceased to exist in Britain. In terms of myth, it had taken its place among the great things of old, the things which create reality: the element of treachery, violence, and submission, had its value not as itself, but as the precedent for the established royal power of the present ruling dynasties.

Outside written texts, legends don't survive without reason; few things are more mortal than a legend told about an entity that has ceased to exist. The books are full of legends that are no longer of any interest to the descendants of the people who told them, because they no longer concern living fact. A classic instance of this is Nennius' evident lack of interest in A itself. Nennius only mentions A, briefly and messily, because it exists in writing and in Latin. Three centuries before him, A was a vigorous presence, a major part of the Gildasian cultural heritage. Even the critical attitude of Gildas and maybe one or two other sharp wits (such as the person who pointed out how absurd it was to think that olive trees ever grew in Britain and were taken away by the Romans) testifies to its importance. Born in an oral culture, grossly distorting the facts of late-Roman frontier politics, A had, by Gildas' time, entered the life of a written, indeed intensely literary culture, and was being placed within the kind of debate that goes on by means of written books.

Nennius and Gildas agree that A stretched from the beginning to the end of the Roman period, but are both terribly vague about dates. This is hardly surprising, if we accept that a sequence of events lasting roughly 50 years - from the treason of the areani some time before 367 to the defeat of the Picts some time after 410 - had been superimposed over a vaster and vaguer awareness of the depths of time of Roman power. In point of fact, there is no need for the original memories to have been grossly mistaken about the facts they told: what they seem to have said is that, some time after the Romans had come to north Britain to defend the land against the Picts - an event which supplies the absolutely primordial situation, with Rome as the protectors and the Picts as the enemy, whose beginning is the beginning of history - the Britons found Roman ius a iugum and indulged in the First Massacre. What this says is, quite simply, that there was a period of unchallenged Roman power that is the ultimate horizon of memory, and which was first broken when oppressive Roman ways drove the British to the First Massacre. None of this is wildly unhistorical; and there seems to have been a rough perception of the time span involved.

Nennius 30 gives a precise number of years, 348, which conflicts with that of the Seven Emperors - 409 years - and must belong with the original notice so clumsily summed up in ch.30; there is, therefore, a good chance that it may be part of the original picture of A, and certainly inheres to whatever version reached him.

Do we therefore suppose that the redactor of A had any sort of chronological learning? I don't think so. Though 348 years is not very far from the actual period of Roman power in Britain[3], it is far enough to rule out minor errors in calculation; the best we can call it is a rough approximation, clearly showing that no first-rate annalistic tradition lay at its back. On the other hand, the number strongly suggests some sort of numerology. 348 Is the number of days in a lunar twelvemonth, twenty-nine multiplied by twelve. This seems to hint at some kind of incompleteness about Roman power, as if it stretched imperfectly over a whole describable as a year. The Celtic year was solar, and the lunar year, of course, is famously short of its 365 days. What the story seems to be saying is that the Romans only last a lunar year of years, 348 years instead of the perfect solar 365; 17 years are left over - presumably some sort of completing period of time. This must surely be related to Roman inability to complete and perfect the defence of Britain by subduing the Picts, or to placate their unhappy British subjects. This is probably a message in the carpet, intended for those who can unravel such things - a circle of initiates (probably the storytellers themselves) who can read meanings into the structure and chronology of the story.

The class of native storytellers among whom A originated must have been particularly interested in the power and legitimacy of the kings, or chieftains, whose origin legend A is; which reminds us of the very well attested Welsh and Irish bardic classes. It was these people who handed down this legendary echo of the historical establishment of Roman dynasties in southern Scotland, along with its political message (the duty of Roman rulers to keep their subjects under merciless control in the name of Roman majesty) to an age in which Rome was a fading memory. Some generations of Romans had ruled the frontier tribes by the time that the Saxons seized what Prosper Tiro of Aquitaine had only recently called a "Roman island"; time enough to impress on the natives the significance of their Roman aristocracy. At the same time, that aristocracy had become embedded in the tribal world of the North to the extent of feeling the need to support storytellers or bards at their own courts, wielding Celtic verse and Celtic ideology in the service of Rome. A partial parallel would be all the millions of Indians who, in the course of two centuries, gave their allegiance - not infrequently genuine and even heroic - to England's foreign rule, fighting her wars, serving her administrators, even learning to beautifully use her language; but never, at the same time, losing their religious and national identity.

There was probably a change in religion. Let us start from the fact that the scheme of A was understood to extend over the whole Roman period; and go on with the theory that its memories referred in fact to only sixty or so years before 410. Now, according to Gildas, the Roman conquest of Britain was roughly contemporaneous with the rise of Christianity. This is in fact historically correct (Our Lord died in 33AD, Claudius invaded Britain eleven years later), but Gildas gets the chronology wrong. His seventh chapter ends with the Roman take-over of British wealth, which implies an already considerable involvement; the eighth tells of the spread of Christianity to Britain, involving the emperor Tiberius. Tiberius, of course, came before Claudius. What is more, Gildas sees the two things as close and to some extent connected. Christianity reaches Britain while (interea) the Romans were setting up the punishment structure that follows the Second Invasion, and, it is implied, in the period in which (according to a legend Gildas took as fact) Tiberius Caesar had forbidden the persecution of Christians.

Gildas' ch.8, whose rhetorical and syntactical fireworks we already met, does not merely adapt a passage from Rufinus, but fits it to the specific circumstances of Britain. Rufinus speaks of the true Sun rising over mankind at large; Gildas, of the same Sun coming to warm, specifically, the frozen and remote island, the furthest in the world. It is cold Britain that the Faith is coming to warm – an arrival which, curiously, follows the Second Expedition, which had seized not only political, but religious power in the shape of its substances, oil and wine. The Second Expedition is religiously decisive.

To interpret A's picture, we have to see Gildas' account as subject to two separate chronologies: the explicit one, drawn from the written Roman and Christian history time-scale, in which Christianity appears in the reign of Tiberius; and the implicit one, involving the last fifty years of Roman power in north Britain, on which the whole legend is built. Gildas claims that the incolae received the teachings of the true Sun, Christ, with little enthusiasm (licet tepide[4]), but nevertheless steadily and with no backsliding[5]. He understands this to mean that Britain was Christian from the days of Tiberius, which is nonsense; but in terms of the implicit time-scale, it follows the Second Invasion and the Roman takeover of gold, silver, aes, wine and olive. In terms of the implicit time-scale, therefore, Christian sacrificial practice is forced on the natives by the Second Expedition. The takeover of wealth of the Second Expedition involves a Christian set of sacrificial substances; that is, it places the northern tribes not only under the control of Roman dynasties, but within the religious power of the Roman Church.

The ideas here are slightly involved: Gildas interprets the Second Invasion and the Taking of Wealth as the antefact of the acceptance (licet tepide) of Christianity by the natives, although they seem to pre-date the coming of Christianity. It is possible that the taking of Christian religious substances by the royal tribe that is the Romans may have pre-dated, in the legend, the arrival of Christianity itself; that is, that the possession of Wine and Oil by the Romans may have been seen as a pre-condition, even as a prophetic foreshadowing, of the coming of the Faith.

Whatever the case may be, there is a definite association between the Taking of Wealth and the arrival of Christianity, which seems to hint at a definite political imposition of the imperial and Catholic form of the religion by Theodosius' nominees on North Britain beyond the Wall. By the time A was written, the descendants of these force-fed lambs cherished their Christian identity as a differentia, placing them above their hated northern neighbours. (This is not entirely different from the way watered-down Protestantism was stuffed down very unwilling English throats a thousand years later by the monster Henry VIII and his scoundrelly new nobility, only to be internalized by the descendants of his victims and become a mass of inalterable and vicious popular prejudice, showing its brutal origin in its unthinking violence, that was to bedevil the country for centuries.)

It seems highly likely that the imposition of Roman dynasties on the frontier tribes must have involved an official imposition of Christianity; their religion would have been one of the reasons why Theodosius would have selected them for the job[6]. From that moment on, there is no reason to imagine that the Roman dynasties and their courts ever ceased to be Christian and Catholic; at least as long as they valued their Roman identity (St.Patrick blasted one of them, Coroticus, for being neither Roman nor Christian at heart). Now we can assume that the learned classes of the tribal North depended on the royal tribal courts; and it follows that they must have adopted the new faith, at least superficially. The presence of organized Roman Christianity also means that another learned class - priests and possibly monks - must have made its appearance under royal and Roman protection.

The imposition of Roman rulers north of the Wall was only a part of the settlement that Theodosius the elder tried to impose on the country. His report to the Emperor recommended the reorganization of the lost province, renamed Ualentia and probably corresponding to the North and up to York; it was for the territories north of the Wall, he preferred not to proceed to annexation, but to guarantee the future allegiance of the tribes by imposing Roman rulers, leaving the tribes politically intact. This seems to agree with what we have seen of the Celtic mentality, which found changes in dynasty much easier to understand than annexations; it seems as though Theodosius must have taken good advice about the way to deal with natives.

His actions suggest a radical divide between Britain south of the Wall, where even after a disastrous Pictish invasion a legal and military Roman structure could be rebuilt, and Britain north of it, where, even after what must have been an equally disastrous Roman punishment, strong tribal loyalties were to be exploited in the service of Roman praefecti, rather than force the transformation of the region into a Roman territory. There is nothing to suggest that similar tribal entities, with royal courts and learned classes of an unmistakably Celtic type, existed in what was to become Ualentia, whether or not Latin was spoken there. Ethnicity is more than language: even after what we must assume to have been pretty severe punishment, the tribes beyond the Wall had a whole self-standing political and cultural structure, centred on the royal court, into which the Roman Praefectus - presumably followed by a family, other functionaries, and at least one priest - could simply walk in, taking the place of the tribal king to the extent that, if not he, his successors at least will entertain native bards in native style. There is no evidence for any such thing south of the Wall. Whatever the relationships between Roman and Celtic culture in those highland areas (Pennines, Northumberland and Durham, Wales, Cornwall and Devon) that were within the borders of the Roman provinces, A has its origin beyond the Wall, among those tribes - Selgovae, Novantae, Votadini, Dumnonii - that come within the wider area of operations of forwards Roman power; and their descendants (or those who claimed to be) are lords of the Gododdin in their southwards march, or kings of Strathclyde[7]. It was on these tribes that Theodosius imposed Roman rulers, and it was their Celtic culture whose long-term reaction to Roman conquest and Christianization is expressed in A.

Finally, if the echoes of the Saxon invasion I have felt in RA are really there, then A is the result not only of one, but of two stages of ideological evolution: firstly, the acceptance of the new Roman aristocracy by the native storyteller class (surely involving some sort of conversion to Christianity, the religion of their new masters); and, later, a reinterpretation of those same dynasties in the light of the new Saxon power. The narrative that became A obviously began to live more or less as soon as the Roman dynasties were imposed on the North; at what point it became the intellectual property of the storytelling class I postulated cannot be guessed, but it must have been somewhat later; and it must have represented the point at which that class entered the service of the conquerors. The story is not so jumbled that its main lines are not in keeping with the historical events that gave it birth; but that is not actually evidence of anything, since the dynasties which it served spoke Latin and could read and write, and therefore keep written records. The only thing that can be said for certain is that A existed in the form I reconstructed, a generation or two before Gildas.

Notes


[1]The host with which Theodosius entered Britain was anything but enormous, but, if Ammianus wrote all the events of the expedition in chronological order, Theodosius had already had Valentinus murdered and recovered the loyalty of local Roman troops when he set out to deal with the arcani/areani and recover the “lost province” Valentia.

[2]JONES: The later Roman Empire, Oxford 1964, vol.ii p.611. FRERE: Britannia, London 1974, 392-3. MORRIS: Age of Arthur 17ff. Morris unifies Quintilius and Clemens and adds an Antonius Donatus and a Catellus Decianus.

[3]However you reckon it. From Claudius' invasion to the Rescript of Honorius (44AD to 410AD), 366 years; from Caesar's first landing (which is how mediaeval Wales reckoned it) to the Rescript (55BC to 410AD), 465; from Caesar to Magnus Maximus (which is where later Welsh annalists placed the end of Roman power), 55BC to 388AD, 443 years. The calculation from Claudius to Maximus - 44AD to 388AD - comes up with roughly the right sum, 344 years; the problem being that there is no evidence whatever that A knew the names of either Claudius or Maximus, let alone their dates.

[4]Even given Gildas' long-range literary artistry, I am not sure whether these two words licet tepide, separated by others (Quae licet ab incolis tepide suscepta sunt) should actually be read as an anticipation of the way in which the remnants of the Romano-British aristocracy remained licet trepidi in Britain after the Saxon catastrophe (25.1). It may be an unconscious echo; but if it is conscious, I suppose that Gildas’ point is that, just as the British had given only the weakest and most "tepid" allegiance to the Trinity, so too they were not allowed, in their time of trial, any more than the weakest and most terror-stricken (trepidi, they were terrified) hold on their own patria; as they had not cherished the everlasting patria, so they were almost deprived of the temporal one.

[5]He inserts at this point an account of the Diocletian persecution in Britain, to which he attributes the martyrdoms of Albanus, Aaron, Julius and a number of unnamed martyrs. These clearly come from a different account, possibly not firmly anchored in any chronological frame (the dates of martyrs frm better-documented areas of the Roman empire can still be dubious even to the extent of centuries; cf. the case of Pionius, ROBIN LANE FOX, Pagans and Christians, London 1986, 460-72) and it seems likely enough that Gildas singled out the most famous of all persecutions as a convenient point to place their stories. In other words, there is no reason to believe that A contained any mention of the Diocletian persecution at all, and therefore no date for any backsliding or persecution. There is no evidence that A contained any account of British backsliding; so far as the evidence shows, A described the British - that is, the northern tribes - as seamlessly Christian from the time of the Second Expedition and the Taking of Wealth.

[6]According to Augustine - who, as an African, ought to know - Theodosius’ imposition of Roman praefecti on African border tribes in 371 was swiftly followed by their conversion to Christianity. Letters, 199, 46.

[7]Nora K Chawick - Celtic Britain, London 1963, p.40 - claims that the names which precede the three Latin-named ancestors of Cunedda - Paternus, Aeternus, Tacitus - in one of Morris' praefecti dynasties, are "Pictish". If that is the case, this may be a memory of the previous local kings, displaced by Theodosius in 367, and may show that the Votadini, at least, were ethnically a good clear closer to the Picts than they became afterwards, under the influence of Roman and post-Roman Britain.

History of Britain, 407-597 is copyright 2002, Fabio P. Barbieri. Used with permission.

Comments to: Fabio P. Barbieri


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